AUSTRALIA'S tour of Pakistan could not have come at a more tumultuous time. A couple of weeks before the team arrived, the allegations of match-fixing took a concrete shape with a leak from one of the ongoing inquiries naming Wasim Akram, Ijaz Ahmed and Salim Malik, who had just been recalled to the team after a long stint in the wilderness, as being involved.
Then after their arrival, the possibility of Australian cricketers testifying before the inquiry panel arose. Malcolm Speed is in Pakistan to respond to an official request from the Pakistani authorities as this is written. Two of the Australian cricketers who in 1994 claimed that Salim Malik had offered them inducements to lose a Test -- Tim May and Shane Warne -- are not in Pakistan, but Mark Waugh, the third man to make the accusations, is very much there.
This is not exactly the best atmosphere in which Test cricket can be played. More so given the fact that two of the accused -- Wasim Akram and Salim Malik -- are very much part of the Pakistan team which is contesting the first Test. You can bet that the Australian media take a dig at this at every conceivable opportunity. There have been digs too at a couple of early decisions in Australia's first innings in the first Test. Australians are many things, but they aren't good at facing the music; they tend to lose it.
Rawalpindi, the scene of the first Test, will set the scene for the series. Pakistan were first down, then recovered; the same happened to Australia and as this is being written Michael Slater and the old fighter Steve Waugh have taken Australia from a precarious position to 150-plus for three. One thing strikes me at this point -- how many times will Waugh be called on to rescue the team? And how many times will Mark Taylor go to those thin edges before he has got into double figures? It appears that it is only a matter of time before Taylor announces his retirement. I hope he is not pushed to do it, the way Kapil Dev was.
Two players stand to gain by the tour -- Stuart Macgill and Colin Miller but it is doubtful whether the latter would survive; he is 34 and the second oldest Aussie to make his Test debut. Bob Holland came and went at 38 in 1985; will Miller stay on and make a name for himself? Macgill will definitely stay on for some time; if Warne returns then his chances will be limited but whether the spin wizard will return to his old form has to be seen. And if Taylor and Michael Slater fail (Slater is in the mid-80s at the moment), the Mathew Hayden is waiting in Australia to stake a claim for the Ashes series.
After the Indian debacle, one is loath to give Australia too much of a chance in Pakistan. The Pakistanis are enigmatic players; they can be brilliant one day and ridiculously easy to beat the next. But in their own backyard, they are the most difficult team to beat and for this I rely on no lesser an authority than Sir Garfield Sobers. Sir Gary did not elaborate on that comment but he knew the game better than most.
Here it comes. Pakistan are odds-on to take the series; Australia can hope to win one Test, no more. It may end up 1-1. But I would be more inclined to favour a 1-0 or 2-1 verdict in Pakistan's favour. I may end up with egg on my face, the way I did when I predicted an Aussie win in India earlier this year. These are the risks a cricket writer takes. And if it comes out my way, remember -- you read it here first!